Filipino Theater and PostMillenial Pop: An Interview with Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns

I am just back from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference, held this year in Chicago, where for the first time, we were able to display on the New York University Press table the books which we are publishing as part of the Postmillenial Pop book series, which I co-edit with my USC colleague Karen Tongson. Here's how we describe the series on its website:

This series strives to publish work that reimagines scholarship on popular culture in the age of transnationalism, convergence and globalization. How does “spreadable” content, as well as media innovations and practices still in formation, reanimate critical approaches to a vast array of popular forms like music, television, video games, comics and movies, as well as emergent forms of popular discourse like blogs, micro-blogs and social networking sites? Conversely, how does the analog (in form and concept) persist, resurface and reinvent itself despite the fascination for “the new” or the “not yet”?

While the series focuses on contemporary popular cultures, the designation “postmillennial” is not meant to be a historical proscription. Instead, Postmillenial Pop encourages approaches that considers contemporary forms and popular practices within a broader matrix of political, cultural and affective histories of race, sexuality, gender and class. Furthermore, the series seeks to publish work that engages the ephemeral and interstitial archives of previous forms of global “re-structuring” and domination, including work that contextualizes the effects of empire, immigration, diaspora and labor movements on popular cultures.

For us, Post-millenial refers to a specific moment in time (and the cultural materials that come out from that moment) but it also describes an intellectual stance -- one which is conscious of the multiple identities that we occupy as critics at this particular cultural moment, one which is committed, for example, to bridging across media and across disciplines, one which sees the importance of engaging in conversations that extend beyond the academy, and one which is aware of the importance of linking together different cultural communities in a conversation that looks towards future possibilities.

As the series has taken shape, it has come at the intersection between the different networks through which Karen and I travel, and as such, it is marked by what we hope are provocative and unexpected juxtapositions of different critical and theoretical traditions. We have, as of now, four books published in the series with more coming out in the current year. I hope to feature interviews through the blog with the series contributors as their books start to appear. Today, we are featuring an interview that Karen did with Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns, the author of the series's first book, Puro Arte: Filipinos on the Stage of Empire.

The other books in the series so far are:

Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green, Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture.

Michael Serazio, Your Ad Here: The Cool Seel of Guerilla Marketing Derek Johnson, Media Franchising: Creative Licensing and Collaboration in the Culture Industries

And forthcoming books include:

Aswin Punathambekar, From Bombay to Bollywood: The Making of a Global Media Industry

Mark Anthony Neal, Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities

And there are more in the pipeline.

Puro Arte explores the emergence of Filipino American theater and performance from the early 20th century to the present. It stresses the Filipino performing body's location as it conjoins colonial histories of the Philippines with U.S. race relations and discourses of globalization.

KT: First and foremost, we're thrilled to have published Puro Arte: Filipinos on the Stages of Empire as our debut title in the Postmillennial Pop series at NYU Press. I think the book does tremendous work in reconfiguring how we define "performance" in a contemporary, purportedly "post-imperial" age, at the same time that it taps into archives that may be more broadly understood in Filipino Studies, American Studies and Filipino American Studies, but not as widely considered when it comes to discussions of representation and embodiment in other popular and national contexts--though they are most certainly relevant to other transnational notions of "theatrics," as you call them. I'm wondering if you could begin our conversation by sharing more about the origins and different implications of the book's organizing phrase "puro arte" (literally, "pure art," but in Tagalog, used as a way to describe "putting on a show" in many senses of the expression)?


LB: Thank you for having the vision to include this book as part of the new book series.  I didn’t realize this book is the first in your series. I feel honored.

 The book’s organizing concept, “puro arte,” finds its inspiration in several sources: through vernacular usage, through creative interpretations of Filipino languages by Filipino artists, and last but not least, through the tireless work of Filipino American artists struggling to create a community for themselves. I draw also on a poem by joel b. tan that plays with a series of Spanish words, including “puro arte” and “seguro,” whose meanings shift as they became part of spoken Filipino. From Spanish puro arte’s pure art moves to Filipino’s pure theatrics; from Spanish “seguro’s” surely shifts to Filipino’s “maybe.” I was really inspired by this creative “flippin” (to reference a collection of Filipino creative writing anthology Flippin, specifically as it foregrounds the play of the vernacular even as it embodies colonial histories.

I also owe much to my co-organizers of Puro Arte, a gathering of artists, community organizers, and academics in San Francisco focusing on the relationship between artists and community-based organizations. Alleluia Panis of Kul Arts, Inc, Professor Christine Balance (UCI, Asian American Studies), joel b tan (community liason, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts), and Olivia Malabuyo (Gerbode Foundation), were my kulaborators back in 2003 and have since then continued to help me explore these linkages.

Most importantly, I am particularly drawn to the worlds of potentiality within forms of puro arte, as places  of radical transformation and creativity, despite or because of colonial/postcolonial histories of violence..


KT: You do some wonderful work with photographs of Filipinos taken for, and made available on display at, the 1904 World's Fair and other "exhibition" contexts. I've always been very moved by the work you've done with Filipino Taxi Dancers in central California and beyond, most noticeably as a means of crafting a historical genealogy for why Filipinos are regarded as "splendid dancers" specifically, and as consummate entertainers in a more general sense. Of interest to various media scholars who read this blog will be how you, as a scholar, transpose these images that proliferated globally in various mediated and colonial forms into an account of the "Filipino performing body's" status as a moving archive of colonial relations, influence and discipline. Could you tell us more about your own process in choosing these images, and reconsidering them through the trope of "puro arte?"


LB: You’re right that the US colonial archive is replete with such provocative images. Equally invested in archiving these materials are Filipino/American communities. The images I discuss in the book are in some ways hegemonic images. The spectacularized photographs of Filipino performing bodies, of Filipino men dancing with white women in the chapter you’re referring to, have been made to represent this kind of social contact as one that transcends colonial violence and racism. I was definitely interested in choosing iconic images because part of what I work through in the book are the ways in which Filipino Studies/Filipino American Studies grapple with the rich afterlife of U.S. empire. Specifically, the images of white women and Filipino men at the 1904 World’s Fair are reproduced (in function and performance) in the photograph of a Filipino taxi dancehall patron and a white taxi dancer. By staging these two sets of representations side by side, I was attempting to gesture to the connections between the project of Filipino masculinity and the struggle for suffrage and emancipation of white women and migrant women.


KT: Martial Law was such a defining event for the production of Filipino art and performance; paradoxically, as you argue, the regimes of discipline and control that emerged in that dictatorial moment of Marcos' extended reign became an incredibly generative, oppositional one, for numerous artists in literature, performance, and digital art. In this chapter, you also tackle the stage adaptation of Jessica Hagedorn's celebrated novel, Dogeaters. Could you tell us a little more about how you decided to re-frame previous discussions of Martial Law and art through an adaptation like Dogeaters? What were your own encounters with the different productions of Dogeaters like? And to what extent did you, as a dramaturge as well as a scholar, become involved in that process or other productions related to this topic?


LB: Where to begin with Martial Law? It’s probably one of those moments I’ll keep returning to since I’m one of those Martial Law babies—I was born just as Marcos was conceiving Martial Law and I left the Philippines just as the Marcos regime was desperately crumbling, and the martial regime was lifted.


Here, I wanted to put in conversation theatrical projects that engage robustly and even belligerently with the violence of Martial Law. The chapter first looks at the social protest plays staged by a U.S.-based radical Filipino American political organization, the Katipunan ng mga Demokratikong Pilipino (KDP/Union of Democratic Filipinos). Through plays performed in various community settings, KDP grappled with its anti-Marcos political agenda and its anti-racist politics in solidarity with other people of color in the U.S. By juxtaposing the work of Sining Bayan with Dogeaters, I wanted to highlight histories of anti-Martial Law activism by Filipino Americans through cultural work, especially because culture was such a battleground during the Martial Law.


Salamats to Jessica Hagedorn’s generosity and friendship, I had the opportunity to sit in on the first (and only thus far) production of Dogeaters in the Philippines, in Manila, in 2007. Because I was able to sit in during the creative process through the opening performances, I had the privilege of talking with the cast and the rest of the creative production team. I asked them directly what they thought of the play, what they think it brings to stories about the Martial Law. Some of them have created their own Martial Law performances, including a performer who is an Imelda impersonator. Of course all of them lived through the Martial Law. In many ways, it was these difficult and yet energizing conversations as well as the experience of going back to the Philippines through the writing of this book that compelled me to ask questions that push from a different set of concerns than ones that have previously framed Dogeaters productions in the U.S.


As I mentioned earlier, this is a period in Philippine history I will keep returning to, for personal reasons. Just this past summer I co-curated two nights of performance for Kul Arts, Inc. entitled “Make Your Own Revolution.” This event featured staging fiction and performance works engaging with state violence. I had the opportunity to translate a Martial Law classic protest performance, Ilokula II,, a Filipino street play written by UP Peryante (anti-Martial Law theater group in the Philippines). 


KT: Finally, I think one of the signature "crossover" chapters of your book is the final section on the musical smash, Miss Saigon, especially with all of they hype and hullabaloo surrounding the cinematic adaptation of the same French songwriting duo, Boubil and Schoenberg's best known musical, Les Miserables. Audiences will be keen to learn more about how something like a stage musical fostered an entirely new set of economies, as well as performance practices in the Philippine provinces[lb1] . Could you share more with this audience about the "Saigonistas" and "Saigonista" training programs in the Philippines, and perhaps even speculate, at the end of your comments about how we might contextualize what happened with and through Miss Saigon in the Philippines, as a potential transmedia phenomenon now?

LB: Like any colonial undertaking, the search for Kim is well-documented, and ironically by the (colonial!) enterprise itself. The search for the lead Kim brought out many Filipino musical performer hopefuls not just in the Philippines, but also in cities in Canada and the U.S. The training programs, in varying formal and informal capacities, were set up to prepare Filipinos for the performance demands of a eight to nine shows per week, including two shows on some days. Though the Philippines has a long history of theater-making, it does not have the same economy that can support 8-9 performances per week, in a run that could last for ten years.

Miss Saigon produced a community of performers, who refer to themselves as Saigonistas, those who have been part of Miss Saigon productions world-wide. They attribute their skills that cross over to the global entertainment complex to their training as Saigonistas. In puro arte fashion, I consider this phenomenon as a site where dreams of the Filipino nation and dreams of the Filipino people converge and diverge.

Charice Pempengco, Arnel Pineda, and others may be more recent “discoveries,” but like any other “discovery” narratives, once you look into them, it’s not quite as original and isolated as claims make them out to be. I imagine such kinds of phenomenon will continue as various technologies of social media provide more opportunities to come into being, to seek out intimacy, and to express one’s dreams. Our friend Christine Balance’s forthcoming manuscript (Tropical Renditions) is really the source to go to for the kind of speculation of transmedia phenomenon you are looking for.

What is most interesting to me about these artists are the choices they make after having been a part of the global entertainment complex. I think about someone like Monique Wilson, one of the first Saigonistas, who has been head of an acting training program in England, who started New Voices, a feminist theater company in Manila, and is a vocal advocate of Filipina women’s rights. She comes to mind because even though she is not visible in the mainstream entertainment industry as some of her peers and even those who came after her, the choices she continues to make as an artist I find refreshing and inspiring.


Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns is the author of Puro Arte: Filipinos on the Stages of Empire. She is an associate professor in the Asian American Studies Department at UCLA. She is also a dramaturg.
Karen Tongson is a cultural critic, writer and associate professor of English and Gender Studies at USC. She is the author of Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press, August 2011), co-editor of the book series, Postmillennial Pop (with Henry Jenkins), and co-editor-in-chief of The Journal of Popular Music Studies (with Gustavus Stadler). She is also the events editor for the journal, American Quarterly. Tongson's latest book project, Empty Orchestra: Karaoke. Critical. Apparatus. offers a critique of prevailing paradigms of originality and imitation in aesthetics and critical theory, while exploring karaoke cultures, technologies, techniques and desires.